Since opening in 2011, The White Horse has established itself as Austin’s hipster honky-tonk — no doubt a mainstay on the calendar of any Eastsider in town. They might be less familiar its proprietor, Denis O’Donnell, a family man with a flair for good times and an affinity for great people. On a Tuesday night sipping whiskey, the former Houstonite shed some light on how he got where he is today.
Name: Denis O’Donnell
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Occupation: Owner, The White Horse
Year I moved to Austin: 1999
First neighborhood: Right next to Capital Plaza, which is a heck of a place to live alone as a teenager. I got to see an Uzi fired for the first time in my life.
Current neighborhood: I still call East Cameron home.
What brought me here: I was a musician at 19, and my friend Chris, the guitar player from East Cameron Folkcore, wanted me to start a band with him. I moved here to start a band and start college. But ultimately, it was the music scene that drew me here.
First Austin memory: The first weekend I moved here, I went to Sixth Street with a really shitty fake ID. The guy had a big gap between his teeth and a rat-tail. We went to what is now Bikinis, which was formerly a place called Jazz — a great spot for live music and Cajun food. We wandered up and down Sixth, and we ended the night at The Library, and they kicked my butt, hard. I got yanked off a stool, my head hit the floor and when I went to get my hat, I got thrown from the bar to the street. It was quite a first weekend.
Hole in the Wall has my heart. It’s been a beautiful incubator of every spectrum of live music for almost 40 years.
Favorite Austin spot: Hole in the Wall has my heart. It’s difficult to walk the line of eclectic booking — it’s been a beautiful incubator of every spectrum of live music for almost 40 years. It was a home for Townes Van Zandt and his contemporaries, and a place they used to get kicked out of frequently. They were homeless and hobo jerks that got thrown out of places as fast as they ever had a shot, and they’d inevitably shuffle their way down to the Hole in the Wall. The bartender would go out of his way to avoid having to let them in.
Austinite I look up to: Will Tanner, owner of Hole in the Wall. I spent a lot of years running restaurants in this town. It’s a very stressful thing to do, but it’s in my blood. I left a high-volume, high-stress job, and he took me in. I was a bar back with a sweeping mop; I went from an executive position to shaving a mohawk in my hair. And I never felt so awesome.
Austinite I miss: John Pettis, guitar player in the now-defunct Bankrupt and the Borrowers [who died tragically in a house fire at the age of 26]. He died too young. While the height of the East Cameron scene was just exploding with passion and collaboration. It just wasn’t fair. These guys came from a Berklee College of Music background, but drew from a knot in their throats. It was something that just came out of their stomachs. Pettis was the one who probably had the most skill in arranging harmony, and his bands are seeing so much beautiful success right now that could have only been honed with his skills.
Biggest change I’ve seen: I’ve seen live music move off of Sixth Street and move to Red River, and then East. I’ve seen Sixth Street as an entertainment district dissolve into a knuckle-dragging, shot-bar shit show.
Restaurants I'd recommend: My favorite Austin restaurant(s) would be Justine’s — such an amazing marriage of culture, deep cut vinyl, mixed with French cuisine and fun. It’s an example that Austin isn’t totally inundated with affluent yuppies — that everyone can enjoy the edgy environment of the finer things. If you’re looking for Italian, Vespaio can’t be beat. They go way beyond. It has an old-world, classic warmth.
If I had any advice for a new person, it would be to try to enjoy as much of the beauty and fun that this city has to offer.
Advice for newbies: I’d say "welcome." If I had any advice for a new person, it would be to try to enjoy as much of the beauty and fun that this city has to offer. Because I’ve been a lot of places, and we’ve got it in spades! Go outside and bask in the aesthetic beauty that Austin has so much of. There are so many options of things to do today, things to eat and more. It’s so beautiful. I hope any stranger that comes into town has the opportunity to be racked with the notion of "what to do next?"’ This city is like a sandbox for adults.
What Austin has taught me: Austin has taught me everything. The most important thing it’s taught me is probably love. I met my wife here. It’s taught me business. I’ve run some of the most successful restaurants in town. It’s taught me about hard knocks and the competitiveness of the music scene — I’ve tasted success with East Cameron Folkcore, and I’ve tested the waters with my own band. I’ve learned that this is home, and that this place has more value to me than anywhere that I’ve ever been.
Why I’ve stuck around: I’ve felt that I could contribute in work and business and music, and it all came together at once. All of the work with playing live shows for nobody and nothing turned into a band. All of the hours I worked in a business turned into running a bar I love. I saw an opening in contributing to the country genre that wasn’t there before, and I’m happy to have that chance.